Take care of your feet and back. Invest in good footwear. When I started bartending in the ’90s, nearly everyone looked at bartending as something you did until you figured out what you would do for your career. Now with this cocktail renaissance, bartenders are starting to have longer careers behind the bar.
It is imperative to take care of your body, and one of the most important areas we can take care of is our feet. Avoiding plantar fasciitis is a really good thing. Working for years while standing, without taking any breaks to sit down, is brutal on your feet, knees and back.
So get good shoes! Everyone’s feet are different so here are some recommendations that cover a good range. Red Wing Oxfords, Danskos, Mozos, and Shoes for Crews have some good ones. Make sure that you get non-slip shoes, and I highly suggest going with leather.
One other thing that I swear by are bar mats behind the bar. I once worked at a bar where the owners were unwilling to get bar mats. My back, knees and feet were killing me after only a few shifts. The bartenders got together and decided to put aside a few dollars each shift until we could buy our own bar mats. Turned out to be the best investment we could have made.
Second piece of advice that I have is more for the vets. I once told this to my bar staff, and have heard it repeated by them many times since then. “As soon as you start to believe what people write and say about you, you are fucked.” We all get good press, and it’s nice to get recognized for your hard work. But as soon as you start to think that you are the shit, because you get your name in print, win a few drink contests, write a book, open a bar, etc., you are already losing in my book. Bartending is not about the bartender, it is about our guests and taking care of them and providing service.
Final piece of advice is to read the front page of the paper. You know that thing that gets delivered to some peoples’ houses and gets your hands dirty when you read it? Fine, you can read online if you like, but read about what is going on in the world. Our job as bartenders is to be able to communicate with our guests about their interests.
Yes, I am impressed that you know thousands of obscure cocktail recipes, but 98% of your guests will not want to talk only about those. They may work in real estate and would love to be able to talk about a mortgage that fell through, or what the stock market is doing, or how the local sports teams are doing. These things may not interest you, but you should be able to hold at least a basic conversation about them. Remember it is not about you, it is about our guests.
A little piece of advice that I give everyone I’ve trained over the years is that this profession is always about giving. To some it’s a very natural talent, and to others it doesn’t come so easy, but nonetheless. it presents itself every single day many, many times over.
You’ll find yourself doing it in so many different ways, whether it’s giving somebody a napkin, directions to dinner, or a piece of yourself through a cocktail you created. It can be something thoughtful, like selecting a wine for them on the list from a region you adore, or something as simple as a smile and a warm welcome.
It’s all an extension of you in some way. It’s important to know that giving is a strength and not a weakness. Being aware of this element is key to having lifelong satisfaction with choosing to be a service professional.
I was able to recognize this very early on, and the enjoyment I get out of bartending grows exponentially every day.
Two things come to mind when thinking about what would have been helpful to know when I was starting out.
First is that making drinks and bartending are two different things, two separate skills that are the foundation of our craft. Being very developed in one but under-developed in the other makes you a poor craftsman. In a perfect world, both skills have to grow and develop simultaneously. This is a journey that becomes a destination, a fluid kind of thing…
The other is that to really be of service to one’s guests, one needs to learn how to become a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and to wear a thousand faces while knowing that not one of them is your true one. When that can be done for each guest anew, fresh and for real, then a special bond is created between the server and the guest.
The guest is now experiencing hospitality — which is an emotional perception. The bartender also experiences a pleasant emotional sensation of welcoming someone into their world and nurturing them. In this symbiotic relationship, as much as the guest will gain, the bartender gains as well. The guest returns for more, giving the bar return business, and the bartender lives a more content life knowing that they do their job like a real pro, both inside and out.
1. Look after your knees and feet: good shoes and good insoles and good movement.
2. You never learn less.
3. Find a mentor and listen to them.
4. No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
5. You are not in the drinks business. You are in the experience business.
6. The most successful people fail the most.
7. You are not doing someone a favour by making them a drink. They are doing you a favour by giving you a job.
“Bartender, protect me from myself.” It’s my job to show you a good time tonight, but not allow you to ruin tomorrow in the process. I want to serve you whatever you want, but within reason. If tomorrow is a terrible hangover, me or my bar is going to get the blame. This may cause you ill feelings toward me or my bar and result in your visiting less frequently.
“It’s the guest’s party, not mine.” I stress this to my staff all the time. Of course we can join in the fun — but again, within reason. We’re here to facilitate a good time for our guests, not have one without them.
“Share every recipe with anyone who’s interested.” I’ll jot down any recipe for a guest or fellow bartender anytime they ask. It’s a gesture of goodwill. Besides that, you can’t copyright recipes anyway. It’s in my best interest to give them away to establish provenance.
“Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.” This one applies to making drinks that probably shouldn’t be made and using my guests as guinea pigs. It means both the odd or overproduced combinations, but also applies to atmosphere. For example, I’ll never make a Mojito at Amor y Amargo because we don’t use sugar, juice, or shakers. I have access to all those ingredients, but it’s just not what we do. Further, I’m not one for lengthy lists of ingredients that are all housemade, etc. just for the sake of stroking my own ego. (See next rule.)
“Take the craft seriously, but not yourself.” I want my guests to see and understand that I and my team are knowledgeable and experienced in our craft. This will make them feel more at ease and trust in us to do what we are expert at doing. However, I never want to alienate anyone and that’s why I poke fun at myself all the time: to disarm my guests.
You never know what cool or unusual product is going to come down the pike next in the cocktail game. The latest such surprise is Cardamom Bitters, Boker’s Style, produced by the lovably bitter folks at Fee Brothers.
Fee Brothers is one of the mainstays of the alcohol and beverage business, having been operating in one form or another since 1863. They’ve been making cordials and other flavorings and ingredients for much of that time, but today they’re probably best known for their bitters. (To learn more about bitters, read Bitters 101.)
They currently make at least 15 different types of bitters, ranging from Plum to Rhubard and Peach, along with mainstays like Old Fashioned Aromatic and West Indian Orange. Now they’ve gone way back into the history books to resurrect one of the first types of cocktail bitters.
Boker’s Bitters were invented in New York City in 1828 by John G. Boker, a German immigrant. His bitters found favor with the city’s bartenders and became the favorite of the original Professor, Jerry Thomas — barkeep extraordinaire and author of the world’s first bartending guide.
In his How to Mix Drinks, Or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (published 1862), Thomas lists recipes for a handful of cocktails — a new type of alcoholic beverage at that time — and specifies Boker’s Bitters (sometimes misprinted as “Bogart’s Bitters”) in almost all of them.
Now Fee Brothers has produced their own version, marketed as Cardamom Bitters, Boker’s Style. How these bitters differ from the original Boker’s is impossible to say, although we know that cardamom was a key ingredient in the original.
So what are they like? I poured some in a shot glass to smell and taste, first undiluted and then with water. Fee’s version smells sweet and herbal — it reminds me a lot of sassafras. (Think root beer.) Undiluted, the flavor is very bitter, predictably, astringent and bark-like, with orange, spice, and a little mint. With water, the taste is similar, although obviously more muted. The sassafras returns, along with a little sweetness.
Cardamom Bitters are a creative substitution in any cocktail that calls for Angostura Bitters. They are an especially good choice for pre-Prohibition-era cocktails, when Boker’s would often have been the bartender’s bitters of choice. Drinks such as the Japanese Cocktail and Martinez immediately come to mind.
Kudos to Fee Brothers for providing another weapon in the bartender’s arsenal.
You might think you know what grenadine is, but you probably don’t. For years, I thought it was that neon red, cherry-flavored syrup that you can buy in any grocery store in America.
Nope. Grenadine is actually a sweet-tart syrup made from pomegranate juice and sugar. It should be a rich, deep magenta color, it shouldn’t taste like “cherries,” and it definitely shouldn’t have high fructose corn syrup in it.
That doesn’t mean I never use Rose’s, the ubiquitous brand mentioned above. I do — in my kids’ Shirley Temples. If you make one using the real stuff, it just doesn’t taste right. (They don’t think it tastes right, anyway.)
But I don’t use it in cocktails. It’ll give you a nice, bright color, but that’s about it. The flavor is all wrong. You’re better off leaving it out altogether than putting it in your drink.
And that would be a shame, because grenadine is great stuff. It was a common ingredient in the pre-Prohibition era, and shows up in many classic cocktails, including the Jack Rose, El Presidente, Mary Pickford, and Bacardi Cocktail. It even adds a grace note to the Zombie.
You can make your own grenadine — here’s a recipe that isn’t too challenging. Or you can buy some of the good stuff.
Here are some brands that I recommend. They cost a little more and can be a little harder to find. But it’s worth the effort.
To go along with last week’s post on Book Deals of Interest, here are some books that you’ll be able to read a lot sooner. Get those pre-orders in — they’re coming soon to a store near you. (If I missed something good, drop me a note and I’ll add it to the next list.)
Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique by Jeffrey Morgenthaler Written by renowned bartender and cocktail blogger Jeffrey Morgenthaler, The Bar Book is the only technique-driven cocktail handbook out there. This indispensable guide breaks down bartending into essential techniques, and then applies them to building the best drinks. More than 60 recipes illustrate the concepts explored in the text, ranging from juicing, garnishing, carbonating, stirring, and shaking to choosing the correct ice for proper chilling and dilution of a drink. With how-to photography to provide inspiration and guidance, this book breaks new ground for the home cocktail enthusiast.
Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times by Michael Dietsch Raise your glass to a surprising new taste sensation for cocktails and sophisticated sodas: Shrubs. Not the kind that grow in the ground, but a vintage drink mixer that will knock your socks off. “Mixologists across the country are reaching back through the centuries to reclaim vinegar’s more palatable past . . . embracing it as ‘the other acid,’ an alternative to the same-old-same-old lemons and limes,” said the New York Times. The history of shrubs, as revealed here, is as fascinating as the drinks are refreshing. These sharp and tangy infusions are simple to make and use, as you’ll discover with these recipes.
Alchemy in a Glass: The Essential Guide to Handcrafted Cocktails by Greg Seider
Full of original, ingredient-driven recipes for cocktails, mixers, garnishes, and bitters, this book by a cocktail expert for master chefs shows readers how to transform spirits and flavors into inspiring, mouthwatering drinks. In bars and restaurants across America, drinkers are being exposed to the artistry of the modern cocktail. Alchemy in a Glass takes readers on a journey of the palette and teaches them the art of balancing flavors, mixers, and spirits with the expert guidance of cocktail craftsman Greg Seider.
Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit by Dane Huckelbridge Popular history with a whiskey-soaked edge: Bourbon is Dane Huckelbridge’s artful and imaginative biography of our most well-liked, and at times controversial, spirit, that is also a witty and entertaining chronicle of the United States itself.
Whiskey Cocktails: Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World’s Most Popular Spirit by Warren Bobrow Grab your bow tie and a rocks glass, because we’re talking all about one of the most classic – and classy – spirits. Whether you like bourbon, scotch or rye, whiskey’s diverse and complex taste will be your new go-to drink for parties, gatherings, or evenings in your study with a roaring fire. Whiskey can be an intimidating drink to the uninitiated. Most folks may not be able to drink it straight. We’ve got you covered. The Cocktail Whisperer, Warren Bobrow, author of Apothecary Cocktails (Fair Winds Press) incorporates some of the best whiskeys into hand-crafted cocktails that bring out the subtle notes and flavors of any good bourbon or scotch.
The 12 Bottle Bar: A Dozen Bottles. Hundreds of Cocktails. by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson We’re living in the midst of a cocktail renaissance—artisanal cocktails, celebrity mixologists, drinks menus as important as the wine list—and here is a renaissance guide for the home bartender. An ingenious new approach to making cocktails, The 12 Bottle Bar begins with one irresistible idea—you need only these twelve bottles—and shows how, with this versatile but select liquor pantry, anyone can make over 200 delicious, classic, budget-friendly mixed drinks, including sours, slings, toddies, and highballs, plus the perfect Martini, the perfect Manhattan, the perfect Mint Julep, and more.
I’m a lifelong reader, in addition to being a book critic for the past many years, so when I began my education in cocktails and spirits, it was inevitable that I turned to books for information. Over the past few years, I’ve collected the best volumes for my library that I can find. Poring over them has taught me most of what I know, and the experience has been invaluable.
Here are several of the books that I have learned from or enjoyed the most. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if you’re looking to learn more, these would be a great place to start. If you have any favorites you’d like to suggest, please leave a comment below.
(Note that I’ve left several of the classics off this list, either because they’re out-of-print, expensive, or otherwise hard to get. I wanted to recommend things that people can easily find if they’re curious.)
Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail was the first drinks book I read, so it will always have a special place in my heart. DeGroff is a legendary bartender for good reason — he was the crucial figure in jump-starting the craft cocktail movement of the 1990’s and the return of bartending to its historical roots. Filled with great recipes and great stories, this is invaluable and a terrific read.
The book that taught me how to Tiki. I only had a vague knowledge of Tiki drinks and the men who created them before I read Jeff Berry’s books, but he started me down the path to what has become my favorite “genre” of cocktails. It’s hard to overstate the importance of his work on modern drinking. (Plus, if it hadn’t been for this book, there would be no Professor Cocktail’s Zombie Horde.)
A vastly entertaining book from the former spirits columnist of The Washington Post. Jason Wilson traveled far and wide, searching out the best in booze, and he recounted his adventures in this volume. This is a book that a general reader — as opposed to just a cocktail enthusiast — can definitely enjoy.
Another book that the average reader with only a modest interest in drinking can still appreciate. Eric Felten wrote about booze for The Wall Street Journal for many years, and this brings together some of his best work. In it, Felten examines our enduring cultural connection to drinking, relating the history of a variety of cocktails with interesting and often amusing stories.
A comprehensive guide to spirits from the Man with the Golden Palate. F. Paul Pacult is the dean of spirits critics, and I’ve learned more about tasting spirits from him than anyone else. This book is a little outdated now, but it’s definitely still worth reading. Here’s hoping he published a new edition soon! (Its an expensive book, but if it stops you from buying even a couple bottles of bad booze, it’s worth it.)
Another invaluable book, not just for its collection of recipes, but for its introduction of Regan’s remarkable system for analyzing and categorizing drinks, helping us not only to understand them better (and remember how to make them), but to guide us in creating drinks of our own.
Probably the most remarkable new book dedicated to cocktails in many years. One of the world’s top bartenders shares his knowledge — along with an extraordinary collection of recipes. Plus, it’s a gorgeous book. (See the complete review.)
If you want to learn about bourbon (and rye and Tennessee whiskey), this is the book to read. Chuck Cowdery is the master, and he gives the unvarnished history and no-nonsense truth — a rare things in the bourbon world, which is filled with more tall tales than the halls of Congress.
American history as seen through the bottom of a glass. Wayne Curtis combines two of my interests — booze and history — in one book. How could I not like it? And I think you will, too. Curtis has an interesting take on history that is both literate and fun to read.
Although most people don’t know his name, Jerry Thomas was a remarkable figure in the history of alcohol and drinking in America. Thomas was the world’s first “celebrity” bartender and the author of the first major bartending book. Wondrich takes us through Thomas’s work, along with lively commentary and reliable recreations of the recipes he made famous. A great piece of drinks history.
Another book that dives into the depths of some of the classic drinks of the past that have fallen by the wayside. Good recipes and interesting commentary — and since Ted Haigh is a graphic designer in Hollywood, it has beautiful visuals as well.
A little more esoteric than some of the rest, but a remarkable history. (And another lovely book to look at.) Brad Thomas Parsons traces the history of bitters — which began as health tonics — up through their essential addition to cocktails. This book tells you everything you need to know on the subject, including how to make your own.
If you order a drink in a good bar, chances are it will taste better than what you can make at home. But it doesn't have to be like that. By following some simple strategies, you can greatly improve the quality of your cocktails. You may not reach A+ level, but with just a little work, you'll soon be the bartending star of the block.
1. Buy a couple pieces of decent equipment. At the very least you need a cocktail shaker and a jigger. The two together will only cost you $20 and you'll be set to make most drinks. (You can also buy a low-cost set from a store like BarProducts.com. I have this particular set and it's hard to beat for the price.)
2. Measure! Once you've got your jigger, you can start measuring all your liquids that go into the drink. This is crucial.
3. Use good ice. I wrote about ice a couple years ago, so I won't go into too much detail. If you can't make good, fresh ice at home (you need a clean, odorless freezer to do so), then buy a bag at the store. Some people are down on bought ice, but I think it's fine for most purposes.
4. Buy good quality booze. The better the booze, the better your drinks will taste. But this doesn't necessarily require you to spend a lot of money. Cruzan Rum, for example, is perfectly fine and costs less than Bacardi. Sobieski makes good quality vodka that is very cheap. You can find Tanqueray Gin on sale for under $20.
5. Know when to splurge. Bite the bullet and spend the extra money to get Cointreau and Grand Marnier (for example). They're more expensive than the other brands, but they're better. The difference between Cointreau and generic triple sec in a drink is night-and-day. The good news is, most cocktails only require an ounce or less of a liqueur. So you'll get at least 25 drinks from that one bottle. It's worth it.
6. Use fresh juices. Everyone says this, and there's a reason for that. I do sometimes use canned/bottled juices (Bad Professor!), but most varieties just don't taste very good. If you use fresh lime and lemon juice, your drinks will taste better. You can get away with buying orange juice and grapefruit juice from the store, but try to get fresh, not-from-concentrate.
7. Avoid any mixers with high fructose corn syrup. In addition to being bad for you, HFCS doesn't mix well in cocktails. You can almost always find substitutes that contain real sugar. They probably won't even cost any more. You just need to read labels.
8. Buy some decent glasses. A few highball, cocktail, rocks, and collins glasses won't set you back very much, but they'll make your drink experience so much nicer. The right glass can also make your drink taste better, by ensuring you don't flood it with too much mixer. You can buy Libbey brand glasses at Amazon or Target and they don't cost very much. Or you can find unique glasses at your local thrift store for very cheap.
9. Don't substitute ingredients until you know what you're doing. If a recipe calls for a particular kind of juice or liqueur or mixer, use it. You need to have a good understanding of the flavors before you can start changing things up. Sometimes substitutions work — but they often end up in a wasted glass of booze.
10. Taste your drinks before you serve them. If you watch videos on YouTube of bartenders in high-end cocktail bars, you'll often notice them tasting their cocktails before pouring them into the glass. (The usual method of doing this is to take a straw, plug one end, and dip it in the drink. This draws out a small amount that you can taste.) This is your last chance to fix anything in your cocktail that might be off. Too sweet? Add more citrus. Too tart? Add more sweetener. Etc.
If you have any tips that you'd like to share, please post them in the comments below, or email them along.